The Holidays, Loneliness, and the (Bright and Shiny) Future

I’ve always been mystified by Russians’ preference of New Years to the traditional western Christmas holiday. For me, New Years has always been a bit of a let-down; I usually spend it at home with my parents watching the ball drop or classical music on PBS. Snore. As you can imagine, things go down a bit differently in Russia.

New Years became the primary winter holiday in Russia during the Soviet era. New Years is a secular holiday, so that makes sense. For the uninitiated, celebration of New Years in Russia is basically (western Christmas+New Years) X 100. There are presents, Father Frost, champagne, tangerines, fireworks, wishes, and enough mayonnaise salad to give a Kenyan marathoner a heart attack. Some key dishes are “Olivier” salad (a blander version of a basic American potato salad), “Herring in a fur coat” (a weird, multilayered salad that includes beets and tastes kind-of okay until you get to the herring), and “Kholodets” (it’s meat aspic you guys. I’m not kidding). One American friend complained that New Years is celebration of the worst cuisine in the world. I’m going to plea the fifth on this one.

As many of you know, I went home to celebrate Christmas in the US with my family. It was a fantastic mental break (not to mention weather break), but I’m very glad that I decided to return in time for the Russian holidays. My celebrations started with an unbelievably awkward party with colleagues at the Institute. Highlights included seeing my boss (drunkenly?) shimmy to some of the worst Soviet-era disco music I’ve ever heard and an painfully awkward slow-dance to Abba’s “Happy New Year.”

I spent actual New Years Eve in the company of almost-strangers, which was both entertaining and kind of a bummer. A friend invited me to spend the holiday with her friends, a group of mostly 30-something couples who spent 2 hours preparing a huge feast that they barely ate. One highlight of event included an adapted game of musical chairs in which the men predatorily circled an a group of women, attempting to grab one with the music stopped. At another point in the evening I decided to refresh my own champagne (a woman pouring her own drink is a no-no in Russia. I know this and make a point of ignoring it. Obviously), one of my new male acquaintances scolded me, reminding me that “we have a patriarchy in Russia.” OH REALLY?

The actual highlight of the night of the night was the incredible fireworks display in the city center. Seriously, this provincial Russian town put any 4th of July display I’ve yet to see to shame. Unfortunately I didn’t get any good pictures of it because we had switched to vodka by that point. But here’s a picture of the feast no one ate!

Image

My favorite holiday celebration was at the home of my colleague Natalia Vladimirovna (you will remember her as my “Russian grandmother” who always brings me food). She invited me and three of her old students who graduated about ten years ago, one of whom I know from the Institute. The three  met and became friends during their college years and are still best of friends to this day. Hanging out with them was fun, but had the side effect of making me really miss my own college friends. The holidays do weird things to even the most stoic among us.

Speaking of emotions, it’s been a pretty long time since I’ve updated you on the goings on of my life here. This is in part because life has gotten pretty boring, at least from my perspective. My reactions to my everyday experiences have normalized; not every Russian-y thing seems like an event worth sharing anymore. It’s just life. And that’s a good thing and a bad thing.

I’ll give you some examples. That my life has slowed down to a normal pace is good because it gives me the opportunity to feel what it’s like to really live here. This isn’t some abbreviated, study-abroad, excursion filled tourist experience. I have time to read, rest, think, get bored. I have to deal with my own housekeeping problems, cook my own food, make my own financial decisions. I’m at the point where I’m considering whether or not I want to prolong my stay in Russia another year, so it’s helpful to have real experiences to base this decision off of.

On the other hand, the slowness has made things really difficult. I’ve been hesitant to admit that because it feels like failing. I mean, I have this prestigious fellowship and this once in a lifetime opportunity; shouldn’t I just be making friends left and right and seamlessly integrating myself into community life at every opportunity? The reality, of course, is that things aren’t as glamorous as I’d hoped they would be.

It’s been hard to fight the feelings of loneliness, especially now during the holidays when I have so much aimless time. Yes, I’ve made lots of new, cool, welcoming friends. No matter how often I see them, though, I often feel guest in their company. It’s hard to integrate yourself into a group of people who have known each other for years (especially with a language barrier, but I’ll talk more about that later). I grew so accustomed to being surrounded by my close friends 24/7 in college: I never had to eat a meal alone, I always had someone to talk to. The transition to living alone for the first time, especially in with the confluence of other circumstances, has been really tough.

I’ve talked to some of my recently graduated friends in the US about this, and it seems like a pretty common experience. I force myself to recall my first year of college when I felt similarly lonely to give myself some perspective; it takes time to build deep relationships. I know that I need to be patient. The language barrier, however, has added another level of separation between me an my new and potential friends. When I tell them this, they always seem shocked because I can definitely communicate at a basic level and I understand everything that they say to me. There is a very specific, insidious kind of loneliness, though, that comes from not being able to communicate oneself fully, especially for a very verbal person like me. I never actually went through the “nobody understands me” phase during my adolescence, so I guess it had to happen eventually!

But you guys! I have some really amazing stuff coming up this month! I’m packing up and heading out of Murom on Saturday morning to hang in Moscow for a while. I’m hoping to get the chance to meet up with the group of Wellesley Russian students who are in the city for wintersession, to see old friends, and to do some touristing. On the 13th, I’m flying to Vladivostok (a city on the Pacific coast of Russia) to start my westward journey on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Unfortunately, the trip is going to be a little rushed since I have to be in Moscow by the 26th for a Fulbright event. Just a good excuse to have a second go during the summer months, eh?

Image

A map of the Tran-Siberian railway. I’ll be sticking to the red route.

A friend and I are starting together in Vladivostok, where we will depart on a 66 (!!!!!) hour train journey to Ulan-Ude. There we will hopefully meet up with two other Fulbright teachers and continue our journey westward. The itinerary is pretty up in the air so far, so it should be an adventure.

Once we make it to Moscow, we have a Fulbright training event thing that lasts a couple of days. I’m looking forward to seeing the other teachers again and catching up. I’m hoping that talking with them will give me some perspective on my experiences here, both as a teacher and an American living in Russia. After that, I have about two weeks until my work starts again. Maybe I’ll travel a bit more around Russia’s Golden Ring. We’ll see!

I won’t be able to blog while I’m traveling, but I’m taking a notebook and a camera so that I’ll be sure to have stuff to share with you. Until then, С Новым Годом! (Happy New Year!)

A Tale of Comically Low-Level Russian Bureaucracy, or, My New Refrigerator

OY! I haven’t updated my blog in well over a month. Forgive me and I’ll promise to do better?

Rather than do a piecemeal rehash of all mundane events of the past month, I want to share just a snippet. You see, recently I’ve had an encounter with the Russian bureaucracy.

It all started when my electricity started to go out. One night in early October my lights went out for the first time. After a few minutes they came back on and I returned to watching dumb Russian TV (this was early-on enough that I didn’t even have internet in my room). No big deal. Then, it happened again, and since the problem didn’t resolve itself this time I went to the dorm guard and explained the problem. It turns out that I had thrown my breaker, and, having not just fallen of the turnip truck I realized that I needed to maybe not boil water and use my space-heater at the same time. I thus adjusted my electricity consumption habits. But the problem persisted. Sometimes the breaker would be thrown even when all my lights were out and I had unplugged everything save my fridge. Clearly there was a problem with the electrical wiring, right?

Well, that was impossible, the head of my dorm explained to me. You see, they had ESPECIALLY renovated my dorm room (including the electrical wiring) JUST FOR ME right before I arrived. Everything was new. How could it be a problem with the wiring? “You are using too many things at once,” the dorm-head said to me, “You cannot use both the heater and the water kettle at the same time. You must use them in turns.” I got this speech at least 10 separate times. “Yes,” I replied, “I understand how electricity works. I never use them both at once.” Still, no response other than to reprimand MY behavior. (It probably didn’t help that I can’t even begin to translate “to throw a breaker” into Russian. But still.)

There were many incidents, but the electricity fiasco ended with a guard yelling at me when I asked him for help (my dorm-head later told me in the most patronizing tone possible that I had mis-interpreted the exchange, that some people just have a stern tone about them), which I finally reported to my boss who reported it to her boss and according to the rules of Russian bureaucratic chain-of-command and the fact that my university is trying not to embarrass itself with its first foreign visitor in a decade, something finally had to be done. When rational negotiation fails, there is always tattling.

And this is the point where my most recent comedy begins. Unwilling to attribute my problems to shoddy workmanship (the same workmanship, by the way, that left a gap underneath my shower doors so that my bathroom floods every single time I shower), the heads of my dorm placed the blame on my large, admittedly old refrigerator. I told them that since they fixed my electricity I had had no problems, so it probably wasn’t the fridge. So they got me a new fridge. As per the order of the head of my University. I’m not kidding. In the one conversation I’ve had with this man he asked me 1.) what I hoped to contribute to the university this year and 2.) how my fridge was doing.

It took them a month to get my new fridge. They decided to install it on a Friday morning. I was not warned before, so when they knocked on my door I had not yet dressed and my room wasn’t exactly tidy. Two men of questionable hygiene installed the fridge (I don’t want to sound like a jerk, but seriously the smell of their body odor lingered in my room for hours, which did absolutely nothing to allay my general annoyance at this never-ending epoch). I signed at least 3 documents after the fridge was issued. And then I had two fridges.

Yesterday, more than a week after the installation, one of the the women who works in the dorm knocked on my door (again, with no warning and at an inconvenient time). Apparently, the university’s accountant needed my fridge’s factory number and date of production–information that could be found on stickers on the back of the fridge. First of all, SERIOUSLY? Second, instead of letting me find this info or looking herself, this episode included yet another strange, smelly man coming to my room with no prior warning. And I laughed out loud because it was just so dumb and everybody here probably thinks I’m a crazy, spoiled American princess. Because they renovated my dorm room and bought me a new fridge.

Maybe I sound like a jerk. Like a jerk who doesn’t appreciate the fact that my university bought me a brand new, if utterly unnecessary fridge because “our electricians did a shit job the first time” is an unfathomable explanation for a very simple electrical problem. But I don’t appreciate having my privacy violated on multiple occasions, my paternalistic dorm-head entering my room while I’m in my bathrobe, peering into my bedroom and telling me that too many things are plugged in. And I find it embarrassing to be forced to discuss minutia like my refrigerator with the head of my university. I dislike that my home life always seems to make it’s way into my work life. For example, the dorm staff took it up with my boss when I returned home at 3am for the first time. I had to negotiate the terms of my curfew VIA THE HEAD OF MY DEPARTMENT. I could have died from embarrassment. Another, albeit less unsettling incident was when my colleague reported to me that the director of the local philharmonic had seen me at a recent concert (but didn’t actually introduce herself to me at said concert). There are spies everywhere! God forbid I should start dating someone, right?

This has been very rant-y and very negative, and for that I apologize. In my recent lessons on Thanksgiving with my English major students I’ve been talking about the importance of reflection and being aware of the things we have to be grateful for. I haven’t forgotten that! But if I can’t rant to you, then who else do I have?

Some photos

ImageFrom my first weekend in Murom. Shashlik with new friends in a Russian village.

ImageAnother new friend!

Image

I took a trip to Nizhny Novgorod with my student Sofie.

OuALrQ_RYOEAt the Murom Philharmonic with Stas, Ksyusha, and Alyosha.

ImageMy first years took me bowling this weekend!

ImageWith Sevo.

ImageWith Nadya. (And beer. She tells me that when you take a picture of a bunch of booze it’s called palevo.)

Introductory Post/Two Weeks Until Takeoff

Full disclosure: I hate blogging. I’m bad at it. I consider this to be a lifelong issue for me (the literate part of my life, at least). Example: my childhood bookcase shelves at least three fancy leather-bound journals, purchased in different phases of my adolescence, each containing 1-3 entries followed by 100 or so blank pages.

I hope this blog is different. I’m writing it for you (my friends, family, teachers, colleagues, students, and beloved internet randos) so that you know what’s up with me during these ten months that I am living in Russia. But I’m also writing it for me, so that I have a record of my memories that won’t be abstracted by time. I wish, for example, that I had actually followed through on the blog I started during my semester in Moscow during college. That would be cool to have now. I also see this blog as a challenge to me to be a more active observer and participant during my grant period; it will hold me accountable to being present so that I can report back to you in full. The content here will be mostly personal, but I have aspirations to write more topically (i.e. about more broadly political/social issues) once I get my footing.

But now I should bring you up to date: after a long summer chilling at my dad’s house I’m happy to say that I leave for Russia two weeks from tomorrow. (Love you, dad!) Once I’m in Moscow, I will have a weeklong orientation before I move to my host city of Murom. Murom’s about 4-5 hours away from Moscow by train, which is really not bad when you consider the vastness [, glory, and splendor] of the motherland. In fact, it’s located in the same oblast’ (Russian administrative district) as Vladimir, a city where I lived last summer as an intern. Murom is also pretty close to Nizhny Novgorod, a city of 1.25 million that I’ve heard awesome things about but have yet to visit. That being said, I don’t know much about Murom or what to expect from life in a Russian city of just over 100,000 inhabitants. According to Wikipedia, Murom’s been around since around the year 900, making it one of the oldest cities in Russia. It’s the home of the “East Slavic epic hero” Ilya Muromets, not that that means anything to me (YET!). Apparently, during the Soviet era Murom was a closed-city, meaning that foreigners were prohibited from entering because of secrecy surrounding the defense industries there. There is not much else to learn about Murom via the internet, so I guess we’ll have to wait until I get there!

Vladimirskaya Oblast' (Murom's county, essentially) in relation to the rest of Russia

Vladimirskaya Oblast’ (Murom’s county, essentially) in relation to the rest of Russia

I’ll be teaching beginning and intermediate students of English, other teachers, and some graduates at the University in Murom. My contact tells me that we will go over all other specifics when I arrive and not to worry. So basically I am trying to be as chill as possible about not knowing the details. I’ve developed a very zen attitude toward the mystery surrounding my lodging for the next ten months. (My parents do not share the zen. Go figure.)

I’ve scored a decent coat, so all that’s left is to gather up the rest of my teaching supplies (if you have any suggestions for cool/spatially efficient items that could help me share “American culture,” please comment!) and pack. I’ll keep y’all updated!